A topic that most people discuss when a new MMORPG is released is how flexible the character customization system is. Sure, everyone likes being able to look unique, grotesque, beautiful, weird or different but actually just how important is it to a game? Is it only aesthetic fluff or does it provide a deeper dimension to the player’s experience?
I think the answer lies in role playing. MMORPGs are (well, should be) first and foremost role playing games, something we often forget and overlook. Personally, the way my character looks is incredibly important to how I perceive him, how I want others to perceive him and how much I engage with him and thus the game. Being able to uniquely design my character within a MMO gives me the ability to identify myself as an individual, different from everyone else, and being able to customise my avatar to a high degree allows me to undertake the role play that I wish to pursue.
I know role playing is almost a dirty word now and one needs to look hard to find it many of the most popular MMORPGs (*cough* WoW *cough*) but, consciously or not, we all undertake it to some degree. Those moments that you spend choosing your race, face, hair, colour, build, gender and name all play a part of you creating your online persona. Even if you introduce with words like “yo, wassup dawg” instead of “hail, fine adventurer”, you’re still being perceived as a character and a role.
After playing a game like Age of Conan which allows a tremendous degree of customization, it’s difficult for me to strongly engage with my character in say, World of Warcraft. I loved walking into a tavern in AoC and being referred to as an “old man” by strangers that I met within. They could see my character, my role, and interact with it. Of course this type of role playing has a lot more to do with a game’s culture and environment but having that huge degree of character customization helped tremendously. I mean, when was the last time you actually studied someone’s face in WoW? Probably never at all because, honestly, they are so similar and hard to make out that they have almost no meaning.
It’s worth noting that I also think customization shouldn’t just be sliders for every dimension of an avatar’s face (no one really cares if your cheekbones are slightly higher up than someone elses) but rather it should be about bigger factors like age, weight, hairstyles, expression etc. We should be able to create any sort of character from a strapping young male with numerous scars to an doddery old man with a limp. Some games come close but none have yet to offer me the full features and flexibility that I desire.
So character customization is important and a very valuable part of any MMORPG, one that shouldn’t be overlooked or merely appreciated for it’s fluff value. Being able to craft a role for yourself in these games is highly important and can have a massive impact on the enjoyment that we, and the people that we interact with, get out of them.